This parent and baby choir is supporting new mums while making beautiful music

16 July 2019, 12:50 | Updated: 31 October 2019, 16:11

By Helena Asprou

Bristol-based Folks & Bairns choir offers a special community for music-loving mums and their little ones.

When classically-trained musician Rosie Sleightholme gave birth to her daughter, Isla, she decided to set up a choir with a difference.

Based in Bristol, Rosie’s choir, Folks & Bairns, not only encourages new mums to meet up and sing together, but also allows them to support one another during the early stages of motherhood. And unlike many other choirs, babies are welcome to attend too.

The beauty of Folks & Bairns is you don’t need to be able to read music to join – both people with singing experience and those with no prior experience of making music are welcome to join.

We caught up with the choir director to find out more.

What inspired you to set up a choir?

When I got pregnant in 2017, it was quite a difficult pregnancy and I felt very ill in the early stages. I was exhausted, stayed in bed a lot and couldn’t go out, so I felt quite isolated and didn’t know any other pregnant women.

I had always wanted to set up a choir, but it was one of those things I’d never quite got around to doing, and I didn’t think I had the right skills. But I grew up playing the cello and the piano classically, singing in choirs and playing in orchestras at school and at uni. During my second trimester of pregnancy, I felt a little better, so I thought now is the right time.

When I came back from training, I woke up very suddenly in the middle of the night thinking, “I have to set up a choir for pregnant women and it’s going to be called Womb Sisters” – it was a real eureka moment! There’s a community farm across the road from me and they’ve got rooms that you can hire out, so I ran the choir for a few months while I wasn’t completely huge and still had energy! There was a core group of about seven women who would come every week and to this day we’re still good friends.

When I had my baby, I started meeting up informally with the Womb Sisters girls to sing together at my house, other peoples’ houses or in the garden. I set up my parent and baby choir, Folks and Bairns, in January, as the other women also had their babies and still wanted to sing together. It made sense! But the choir also welcomes dads, grandparents and guardians as well.

Mums sing with their babies during a Folks and Bairns choir rehearsal
Mums sing with their babies during a Folks and Bairns choir rehearsal. Picture: Folks and Bairns

What are the benefits of singing in a choir?

For me, it’s all about community. There’s a real sense of magic that’s created when people sing in harmony. At choir, we tend to sing in three-part harmonies – you can sing one line of a melody, but when you have three parts coming together there’s something very special about that and it makes people feel as though they’re part of something whole, that they’re all equally needed in creating this beautiful sound. Singing releases endorphins and creates oxytocin too, so it’s pretty impossible to sing and not feel really great!

When I set up Womb Sisters, I received a call from a friend after about two weeks telling me about a study on the effects of singing on postnatal depression, and how singing was shown to be a really effective way of speeding up the recovery from postnatal depression as opposed to other activities.

Some of the mums have said to me that while they’re singing at choir, it’s not about their baby, it’s about time for them. When you have a child, you’re always in this mode where you’re aware of your child or thinking about your child. But at Folks and Bairns, you’re doing an activity for you, meeting other people and having fun.

What kind of music do you sing with Folks and Bairns?

While we were pregnant, many of us felt knackered, so we didn’t want to use our brains too much in terms of learning the really difficult stuff.

I teach by ear and our songs include lullabies, chants and folk songs from other countries. I try to mix up the languages, so we have Japanese, African and English songs – and we had a Finnish one at Christmas!

How do the babies respond to your singing during choir rehearsals?

They absolutely love it! It’s so sweet and lovely to see. When some of the babies start to get a bit older, they start clapping along to the music and doing their little baby dances. When they’re younger, you’ll find a lot of them are just lying down, looking very calm – and some of them fall asleep! Parents will often come with a sling, so babies fall asleep in the sling.

The great thing about singing when you’re pregnant and then singing with your baby, is that your baby recognises the songs. There’s a song that goes 'Go to sleep you little baby', from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – it’s really repetitive and my daughter Isla loves it! And a few of the other girls still sing that song to their babies when they’re upset. And foetuses can recognise sound from about 18 weeks, so if you start singing repetitive songs they recognise those sounds when they’re born.

Mums and their babies singing in the garden
Mums and their babies singing in the garden. Picture: Folks and Bairns

And finally, what would your advice be to others interested in joining a choir?

As a member of the Natural Voice Network, our ethos is: “If you can speak, you can sing.” Everybody should be encouraged to sing in a choir – it’s a brilliant community activity and with my choirs there are no auditions, so it’s really accessible.

With Folks and Bairns, we’re running at two venues in Bristol because I wanted to be able to accommodate people living in different parts of the city. As parents, it can be difficult to travel around when you have a buggy. I like having small groups of no more than about 10 people, because people really bond. I teach the same material across all of my groups and then we perform them together in a concert, a cappella. We had our first summer concert last week and the two groups I teach sang together – it was great!